Sexism, soggy biscuits and The Time Monster (1972)

time monster

In 1971, producer Barry Letts and writer Robert Sloman co-wrote a season finale for Doctor Who.  It was about the Master disguising himself to infiltrate a small community from where he could summon up a powerful alien creature. It transpires that the Master can’t control the creature, whose long presence on Earth had caused it to be entwined in ancient mythology and who caused the destruction of Atlantis.

The next year, they did it again and called it The Time Monster.  And I think it might win some ignominious prize for being the most sexist Doctor Who story ever. Quite a feat for a series whose basic premise – super intelligent man is accompanied by a subordinate female companion – is inherently sexist to begin with.

Let’s start with the Lady Jo Jo Grant, played as ever with perky enthusiasm by Katy Manning. The script doesn’t miss any opportunity to call her stupid.  “Look, I know I’m exceedingly dim, but would you mind explaining?”, she says to the Doctor (the Pert in full white bouffant glory) in the very first scene. Even ironically, why would you ever give a companion that line? A few minutes later there’s this horribly condescending exchange when Jo is set an impromptu test about the Doctor’s latest gadget.

DOCTOR: Well, what’s it do then?

JO: Well, it, er.

DOCTOR: Mmm hmm?

JO: It, er, detects disturbances in a time field.

DOCTOR: Well done, Jo. You’re learning!

What’s most annoying about this is that Jo’s not stupid. There are plenty of examples of her being smart and resourceful, which presumably is why she can hold down a job at UNIT. But I think Manning was so good at looking boggle eyed at any gobbledegook the Doctor spouted each week that it became easy for the writers to script her as a dizzy blonde.

Later on, she’s told off for making conversation.

JO: It’s a doomy old day. I mean, just look at that sky. Just look at it.

DOCTOR: Do stop wiffling, Jo, there’s a good girl. We’re not out on a pleasure jaunt, you know?

JO: Sorry, Doctor.

“Sorry Doctor”? How about “Sod off Doctor, I was just making a passing comment?” Still, we’re only in Episode One so the story is still young. By now, we’ve also been introduced to the second of three major female characters, Dr. Ruth Ingram (Wanda Moore). She’s almost an alternative version to Jo; she’s still the assistant to a capricious scientist (Professor Thascalos, aka the Master), but she’s smart, qualified and witty (well, as witty as this laboured script gets). She’s a bolshy, wise cracking Liz Shaw.

But one thing is emphasised about Ruth at every opportunity. She is that strangest of alien creatures, a FEMINIST. It is commented on, again and again, most commonly in a resigned sigh of a comment after she makes a strident observation. Take this for example:

RUTH:  There’s no need for you to be so patronising, Professor. Look, just because I’m a woman, there’s no need to treat me like…

HYDE: Here we go.

But her attempts to point out how patronising the men around her are only cause them to be more patronising. Like this:

RUTH: It’s all the same, really. A bland assumption of male superiority.

HYDE: May God bless the good ship women’s lib and all who sail in her.

Or even, irritatingly, this when her male colleague, mustachioed beanpole Stuart Hyde (Ian Collier) attempts to coax her into doing what he wants:

RUTH: Well, it is his project. I mean, he’s the boss.

HYDE: Nominally. But you think how much you’ve put into it. It’s a joint affair. I reckon you’ve as much right to take a decision as he has.

RUTH: Well.

HYDE: Of course if you need a man in charge.

RUTH: That does it. We go ahead.

HYDE: That’s my girl!

And still, we’re not out of Episode One yet. That a writing, editing and directing team of men in 1970s couldn’t realistically or maturely depict a feminist character isn’t surprising. But watching it from a modern perspective, what is weird is the use of women’s equality as a defining character note; women’s lib is Ruth’s “thing”. It sets her apart, rather than simply being a sensible way of looking at the world for any character, male or female.

It is of its time, sure. But by the end of Episode One we’ve been presented with two different female characters; Jo and Ruth. One is labelled as a feminist and one isn’t (again, feminism as optional, not the norm). And Ruth the feminist comes off as much less fun than Jo. So not only is feminism something only some women adopt, it’s also something of a bore. Of course, what we really need is a few scenes of Ruth and the Doctor together.

DOCTOR: Do stop wiffling, Ruth, there’s a good girl. We’re not out on a pleasure jaunt, you know?

RUTH: Stick it up your stovepipe trousers, Doctor.

HYDE: That’s my girl!

RUTH: Bite me, stringbean! (Pow! RUTH punches HYDE in the face.)

By Episode Five we have travelled to ancient Atlantis and met our third major female character Queen Galleia (the Hammer film star Ingrid Pitt). Galleia is smart, calculating and ambitious. But any chance that we might be about get an interesting, well thought out female character is undermined by her costume, which brazenly shows off her considerable cleavage. The Time Monster is telling us from the beginning that this is a character defined by sexuality. She’s there – at least in part – to be ogled. A clear double standard when you compare her to Atlantis’s young male lead, Hippias (Aidan Murphy), who is about as dowdy and unappealing as one could get. Never has there been a soggier biscuit (though to be fair Ryan Gosling would struggle to be sexy under that wig).

It’s not just Galleia’s eye popping costume which signals her as this serial’s sexpot. Her interactions with the male characters are mostly sexual. Firstly, there’s her attraction to the Master, which emerges in her very first scene. She and the Master seduce each other, both motivated more by power than romance, but still there’s a sexy undertone. Fair dues, she’s married to 500 year King Dalios (George Cormack) so perhaps we can’t blame her for a little window shopping.

Between Episodes Five and Six she’s shacked up with the Master and staged a bloodless coup. But it also turns out that she’s been round the block with Hippias as well. In a fairly stilted exchange, Hippias basically implies that she’s slept her way to the top to serve her ambitions for power. And least she gets to tell him to bugger off. So just to sum up: Dalios, Hippias and the Master – Galleia’s had ’em all.

All this adds up to an uncomfortable image of Galleia. She’s a power hungry social climber and her main weapon is sexuality. Sure, she’s a minor villain in the story, so we can hardly expect her to be a sympathetic character. But has Doctor Who ever drawn a clearer picture of female sexuality as dangerous and corrupting? How this sits with the story’s treatment of Ruth’s feminism – as something to be warily mocked – is just as unpleasant. I wouldn’t like to read too much into something as insubstantial as The Time Monster, but in transferring its attention from Ruth to Galleia, it seems to say, ‘Look at all this women’s equality nonsense! Let it get out of hand, and this is where it will lead!”

So to be blunt, The Time Monster gives us three female stereotypes: the bimbo, the shrill feminist and the slut. Just yuck.

LINK to The Visitation. The Time Monster features a scene with Roundhead soldiers. It’s the third story in a row to reference the seventeenth century.

NEXT TIME… I got rescued by this bowl! We touch down on the Planet of the Daleks.

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